Citânia de Briteiros – Fortified Hilltop Celtic Town

I continue to be both amazed and impressed by the abundance of historical sites that can be found in Portugal.

We recently visited the archaeological remains of a fortified hillside town that pre-dates the Roman Empire. In fact, the hillside is known to have seen human activity as far back as the Neolithic (the New Stone Age between 10,000 BC and 3,000 BC) and the Chalcolithic (Copper Age, commencing in the 5th millenium BC). The hillside was inhabited from at least the 1st millennium BC, but its golden age was between the 2nd century BC and the Christian era. It was still inhabited during the Roman Empire (1st and 2nd centuries AD).

This old fortified town is Citânia de Briteiros, located near the city of Guimarães, and only a 50 minute drive from home for us. Admission to the site costs only €3, which also gives access to the small museum located in the nearby village.

From the late Iron Age, this region is understood to have been inhabited by a Celtic culture and people known as the Bracari. There is known to have been a violent battle between the Bracari and Roman troops led by Decimus Brutus, between 138 and 136 BC.

Excavation works commenced on the site in 1874, led by Francisco Martins Sarmento (1833-1899). As a result of those and subsequent works, an area of 7 hectares has been excavated, out of a total area of 24 hectares. So, much of the hillside still awaits exploration.

As it is, the excavations have revealed several historic stone roads as well as a number of areas where family compounds were located. The remains show a progression in the type and style of homes that were built there. The earliest construction would have consisted of round huts made with perishable materials that also featured conical roofs made of straw or similar materials. These made way for stone-walled structures that maintained the round shape and straw roofs, on a wooden frame, supported by a central wooden post. Such round stone homes became prevalent around the 4th century BC. By the 2nd century BC, there was an introduction of rectangular stone houses, as well as the addition of rectangular vestibules in front of the doors of some round houses. By this era, the family compounds became more defined and the roads were constructed.

In the 19th century, a couple of buildings were reconstructed under the authority of archaeologist Francisco Sarmento. However, Sarmento was not happy with the height of these reconstructions, as he believed that the walls and doors were too high. He believed that the walls should be shorter and the roofs taller. Regardless, being over 100 years old themselves, these reconstructions have their own historical value.

Close to these reconstructions is an interesting church building. A plinth across the doorway suggests that the chapel was built in 1853. The roof of the building is comprised of a pyramid built from granite.

Down the hill slightly are the remains of a larger circular building. This is termed the ‘Council House’ and is understood to have been the place where a council of elders from the town would have met to discuss town business. The building and its surroundings are also thought to have been used for celebrations.

The town is known to have had at least two bath-houses, that featured steam rooms and cold baths. The remains of one of those structures (the Southern Bathhouse) can be seen close to the road that skirts the site. The existing remains were discovered in 1930, when the National Road 309 was being built nearby. The course of the road was altered, to protect the Southern Bathhouse. When the site was initially discovered, it was thought that it was a crematory furnace, but the two bathhouses were used by the residents for steam and cold water bathing, probably for ritualistic purposes.

The furnace at the site was used to heat the steam chamber and the ante-chamber, as well as heating quartzite or granite pebbles. Inside the steam room, water was poured over the hot pebbles to create steam. The steam chamber was fully enclosed, except for a small opening at ground level, in the large decorated stone that formed the outer wall. Users would undress and anoint themselves with oil, before squeezing through the small opening in the stone to enter the steam chamber. After a period of steaming (sauna), they would leave the steam chamber and take a cold water bath, before re-anointing themselves with oil and sitting inside the ante-chamber.

Our visit to Citânia de Briteiros lasted about 90 minutes. There is a fair amount of walking required to navigate the site, most of which is over rough stone roads and footpaths. Hiking shoes would be advantageous, or at least flat comfortable shoes. There is very little signage throughout the site, but visitors receive a useful fold-out leaflet that provides information on the various points of interest, which are marked by letters.

After leaving the site, we drove the short distance into the nearby village and located the Museu da Cultura Castreja (Museum of Castro Culture), which is clearly signposted at each junction. The museum is located inside an 18th century farmhouse that belonged to the family of Francisco Martins Sarmento. Martins Sarmento, who usually lived in Guimarães, used this space as a country house and stayed here during the archaeological works he carried out in Citânia de Briteiros and Castro de Sabroso, both located nearby. After Sarmento’s death in 1899, the house was donated to the Sociedade Martins Sarmento, but gradually fell into disrepair. A full restoration of the manor house was possible in 2003, when the museum was installed. It is a small museum, spread over two floors, that pays homage to Sarmento’s life and his archeological work. A short visit to the museum added some context to the things we had seen at the site.

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